Ghosts of The White House

The White House
Washington, D.C.

The White House

They say greatness begets greatness, that those in power leave lasting impressions for generations to come. In some cases, they’re not talking about political changes or impressions on world culture. Some impressions last long after the lives of those leaving them are over, burned into brick and mortar. Sometimes personalities are too strong to leave, tied to this plane of existence by unshakable will and dominant personalities, unfinished business, or just plain stubbornness. On a tour of a place where security is tight and there are reputed to be many secrets anyway, a ghost may seem like the least expected thing in the world. Yet, around every corner a cold breeze blows, a door slams, and shadows dart just out of view. You cannot leave your group, but you can’t help but feel that someone is stalking you, watching your every move.

Washington D.C. is a miniaturized version of the United States. All fifty states are represented, with slices from all walks of life present, in theory at least. How fitting is it, then, that not only the living citizens, but also the dead ones are still counted? When an entire nation is concentrated into a single city, so too are its hauntings, making them truly representative of the rest of the country. Though there are some stories that float through the city that are laughable (the last time I was there, our tour guide, before finding out who I was, swore up and down that the statue of Lincoln came to life at night and tap-danced. No, I’m not kidding.), others stand the test of time and reason. Witness after witness comes forward, each telling eerily similar stories about phantom breezes and disembodied voices. It is the proverbial large mansion on the hill, but who’d have ever thought that many of the inhabitants of the President’s home were presidents themselves who simply refused to leave? To some, it explains a lot.

1792 saw the beginning of the construction of what would become the most famous residence in the world, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. Construction was overseen by George Washington after a contest of design was won by architect James Hoban. Although, eight years later, the house was not finished, President John Adams and his wife Abigail became the first residents.

While most residences in the nation of the White House’s age have hosted several generations or various owners, none can claim even a fraction of the ownership of the President’s mansion. Fourty-three men have called the White House home, each leaving their own indelible mark on its walls. It has been set fire twice, once by the British in 1814 and again during Hoover’s term in 1929. It has seen wars, infidelity, insanity, and even death. Four presidents have been assassinated during their tenure in office, each one cut short of his time, each leaving an impression on the building. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, his son’s death preceded his own by a few years, leading to possibly the first haunting in the White House, and the most persistent.

It has often been said that those who don’t believe in ghosts just haven’t had the right encounter yet. The White House, however, has a reputation for making believers out of the skeptical. From longtime employees like Chief Usher Gary Walters and Doorman Wilson Jerman, to Assistant Ushers like Dennis Freemyer, odd experiences have become, if not commonplace, then expected in the President’s house.

The most prevalent signs of hauntings include doors that slam, lights flickering on and off in the Lincoln bedroom, strange noises, and cold spots. However, what sets the house on Pennsylvania Avenue apart from most every other haunting in the United States of America is the sheer number of apparitions that have been witnessed and reported over the years.

The White HouseThe most often-sighted apparition is that of Abraham Lincoln and his son. First seen by former First Lady Grace Coolidge, Lincoln seems to top the list of spectral guests that wander the halls. Most often he is seen near his former bedroom, where he was laid to die after being shot by John Wilkes Booth. He is also seen standing in the Oval Office, looking concerned and pacing. Accompanying him often is his son, William, who died while Lincoln was in office. Lincoln is reported to have kept President Harry Truman awake at night, rapping on his door and pacing up and down the hallway. Truman’s daughter, Margaret, also saw the former President, who was described by President John F. Kennedy’s butler, Tobias Johnson, as being quite polite and curious. According to Johnson, if the former President wants to get someone’s attention, he will tap them on the shoulder and cough. Not everyone has such a kind description of the former President’s ghost, as one of President Harrison’s body guards was driven to distraction by Lincoln’s nighttime pacing, to the point that he attended a séance to ask the president to leave him alone so he could get enough rest to protect the current president.

During the Taft administration, another spirit was first sighted, Abigail Adams. She does not seem to interact with the living, as she is most often seen walking through the closed doors of the East Room, her arms stretched out in front of her. Those who have seen her say that she looks as she did in portraits in which she used the East Room as a place to hang her laundry to dry.

There are at least two ghosts who are not so friendly in the White House. The first, identified as Andrew Jackson’s ghost, paces about in the Rose Room, cursing and swearing loudly. Most who encounter him are quite understandably startled. The other seems benign enough, until someone tries to change something in the White House garden. Many’s the time that gardeners have reported being accosted by Dolly Madison, wife of former president James Madison, who strongly dislikes having her garden altered.

The most ominous apparition that appears in the White House, however, isn’t even human. It is most often seen in the halls of the building just prior to a great national tragedy. It is, oddly, a black cat that no one can seem to figure out how it got inside, or to where it disappears. However, it appeared in 1929, just before the Stock Market Crash, and again in 1963, just before the assassination of President Kennedy. It has been theorized that the cat once belonged to Abraham Lincoln, though there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Present Day
The ghost stories are often celebrated, told in tandem with stories of pranks played by some of the more rambunctious residents of the President’s mansion. The most famous prank story involves Amy Carter, daughter of Jimmy Carter, and a laundry basket on an elevator. However, stories of real paranormal encounters continue to surface.

The building is impressive in itself, boasting more than 130 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, a swimming pool, movie theater, and its own bowling lane. For all the modern amenities, however, it should be noted that the brick on the outside of the White House is the same brick placed there more than 200 years ago. As late as 2003, people were still reporting encounters with Lincoln and his son, Mrs. Madison and Mrs. Adams, and Jackson and his mouth.

There are no unsupervised visits to the White House, though tours do still take place.

Best Times
The White House is not as accessible as it was before the year 2001. Tours still do occur, but not without heavy supervision. Attempting to sneak away from a group tour is ill advised, as one will get, at the least, arrested. However, the tours do take people past the Lincoln Bedroom, into the gardens, and past the Rose Room.

The White House

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Scott A. Johnson

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